Adventure Seeds From History: Athaliah and Joash

True history is rife with stories and plot arcs that we can take for our own game. I was reminded of one such story this week; I may turn this into a series, I may not, but for now, enjoy the true story from Israel’s history of Athaliah and Joash.

It’s interesting to me how many campaign worlds have a stable government. I believe this is a by product of the world many of us live in today. We enjoy the luxury of stable rulership, and the peaceful transfer of power. For much of history however, this was not the case. History is splattered with the blood of kings, queens, and princes who died at the hands of those they trusted, all so someone else could seize power. Then there are vengeance killings following the coups. The struggle for power was turbulent, filled with intrigue, bloody, and endless.

One such story from the history of Israel, tells of a grandmother who tried to exterminate the royal family when her son died.

Here is a TL;DR synopsis of the story from Wikipedia

Athaliah, as queen of Judah, tried to have all possible successors to Ahaziah executed; one, however,a grandson of hers named Joash was rescued from the purge by Jehosheba, Ahaziah’s sister, and was raised in secret by the priest Jehoiada. Six years later, Athaliah was surprised when Jehoiada revealed Joash and proclaimed him king of Judah. She rushed to stop this rebellion, but was captured and executed.

And here is the full story from the Bible (2 Chronicles 22 & 23 The Message). Words in square brackets were added for clarity.

 When Ahaziah’s mother Athaliah saw that her son [the king] was dead, she took over. She began by massacring the entire royal family. Jehosheba… [Ahaziah’s sister], took Ahaziah’s son Joash, and kidnapped him from among the king’s sons slated for slaughter. She hid him and his nurse in a private room away from Athaliah. So Jehosheba… saved Joash from the murderous Queen Athaliah. He was there with her, hidden away for six years in The Temple of God. Athaliah, oblivious to his existence, ruled the country.

In the seventh year the priest Jehoiada decided to make his move and worked out a strategy with certain influential officers in the army. He picked Azariah son of Jeroham, Ishmael son of Jehohanan, Azariah son of Obed, Maaseiah son of Adaiah, and Elishaphat son of Zicri as his associates. They dispersed throughout Judah and called in the Levites from all the towns in Judah along with the heads of families. They met in Jerusalem. The gathering met in The Temple of God. They made a covenant there in The Temple.

The priest Jehoiada showed them the young prince and addressed them: “Here he is—the son of the king. He is going to rule just as God promised regarding the sons of David. Now this is what you must do: A third of you priests and Levites who come on duty on the Sabbath are to be posted as security guards at the gates; another third will guard the palace; and the other third will guard the foundation gate. All the people will gather in the courtyards of The Temple of God. No one may enter The Temple of God except the priests and designated Levites—they are permitted in because they’ve been consecrated, but all the people must do the work assigned them. The Levites are to form a ring around the young king, weapons at the ready. Kill anyone who tries to break through your ranks. Your job is to stay with the king at all times and places, coming and going.”

All the Levites and officers obeyed the orders of Jehoiada the priest. Each took charge of his men, both those who came on duty on the Sabbath and those who went off duty on the Sabbath, for Jehoiada the priest hadn’t exempted any of them from duty. Then the priest armed the officers with spears and the large and small shields originally belonging to King David that were stored in The Temple of God. Well-armed, the guards took up their assigned positions for protecting the king, from one end of The Temple to the other, surrounding both Altar and Temple.

Then the priest brought the prince into view, crowned him, handed him the scroll of God’s covenant, and made him king. As Jehoiada and his sons anointed him they shouted, “Long live the king!”

Athaliah, hearing all the commotion, the people running around and praising the king, came to The Temple to see what was going on. Astonished, she saw the young king standing at the entrance flanked by the captains and heralds, with everybody beside themselves with joy, trumpets blaring, the choir and orchestra leading the praise. Athaliah ripped her robes in dismay and shouted, “Treason! Treason!”

Jehoiada the priest ordered the military officers, “Drag her outside— and kill anyone who tries to follow her!” (The priest had said, “Don’t kill her inside The Temple of God.”) So they dragged her out to the palace’s horse corral and there they killed her.

What a story! A king is killed, and instead of mourning her son’s untimely death, the mother instead usurps the throne by systematically killing off all possible heirs. Or so she thinks. Unbeknownst to her, there is one son of the king that she has missed. He has been hidden in the temple by his aunt until he is old enough to rule. The priests take care of him along with his nurse as the boy prince grows. Then, as a six year old boy, he is given an armed escort and presented to the people as the true heir to the throne; the usurping queen is dragged into a horse stable and killed.

So, there are some obvious plot threads here that we can steal for our games. A usurping parent who murders her own grandchildren simply to gain power for herself. One member of the family – a baby – escapes the purge, and is hidden, only to appear years later as the true king. But where exactly would the PCs fit into such a story arc? Here are a few ideas:

  • The characters, apprised of the situation, are charged with “abducting” the baby prince and finding a safe place for him until he is old enough to take the throne.
  • The characters live in the land of the wicked queen. They hear rumors that the dead king had a son no one knew about, and must be found to take the wicked queen’s place.
  • The characters are tasked with keeping the young king safe during his coronation – organizing his security force to prevent assassination attempts on the 6 year old during the ceremony.
  • For players who are more into intrigue, you could have the would-be usurper hire the characters as “enforcers” purging the land of “a great evil.” Unwittingly, the characters are carrying out the execution of the royal family so that there is no one to threaten the usurper’s rule.

But wait, there’s more! There is a strong divine element to this story. In 2 Samuel 7, God promised King David that his “…house and kingdom shall endure… forever; your throne shall be established forever.” You also see this in the text above, when the priest presents Joash and says, “Here he is—the son of the king. He is going to rule just as God promised regarding the sons of David.” Since Ahaziah (and therefore his sons) were in David’s family tree, in order for God to keep his promise, at least one of Ahaziah’s sons needed to survive. So one last hook for the divine characters:

  • The divine character’s deity warns them that one of the princes needs to be rescued from imminent danger and hidden away somewhere, with no further information. That prince happens to be a 3 month old baby… and he doesn’t seem to be in any immediate danger.

Knowing the back story helps, but can you see how some players might struggle with something that feels a lot like the kidnapping of a royal baby because “god told me to”? Only after they follow through with the plan (or not!) do they find out about the executions of the throne’s heirs going on behind the scenes.

What hooks did I miss? What would you add?

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